Cherry trees are a good choice for home fruit production, but pests can sometimes be a problem. Here’s how we planted our cherry trees using a permaculture gardening technique called a guild—a combination of plants that works together to produce more healthy cherries.
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Growing Cherry Trees
Tart/sour cherries are hardier and tend to be more disease resistant in my area, so that’s what we planted here in our clay-based Ohio soil. (We planted the ‘Northstar’ variety.) West of the Mississippi, I think the sweet cherry does better, where they will receive the better soil drainage they require. Always do some research before buying a particular variety of tree to be sure it will be appropriate for your growing area.
Many people worry that sour cherries will be too sour, but I haven’t found that to be true. However, the flavor is mellowed through cooking or baking, and we enjoy cooking them down on the stove for about 5 minutes with a tablespoon of water, and then eating them with yogurt. They taste like pie filling without any added sugar! Here are some ideas for drying and using frozen sour cherries.
Planting a Cherry Tree Guild
A guild is a permaculture technique in which a combination of plants works together to enhance production of a primary crop. In this case, our primary crop is the cherry tree. The guild will work together to build a healthier fruit tree that may be more resistant to pests and disease, and will hopefully produce more cherries, too!
Plants in a guild are planted under the central element. In the case of our dwarf cherry trees, the guild plants will be planted within the drip line. The drip line marks the perimeter of the tree’s farthest reaching branches when the tree is fully grown.
The guild plants are chosen for their ability to support the primary crop by providing fertilizer, mulch, attracting pollinators, and/or deterring pests. Often, a chosen plant will provide more than one function, reducing the number of plants needed.
Choose flowers that bloom when your particular fruit tree is blooming in order to attract more pollinators. (More pollinators = more cherry blossom pollination = more cherries!)
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for planting fruit tree guilds, and it is important to research what guild plants would support the growth of the fruit tree at hand by finding out what nutrients the tree requires, and what pests and diseases the tree might be susceptible to.
See: How to Build a Fruit Tree Guild for more information.
1: Fertilizer, Mulch, & Pollinators
Plants called nutrient accumulators dredge up nutrients from the soil and accumulate them in their leaves. When the leaves die back or are chopped and dropped, they will fertilize the soil (and thus the shallow-lying fruit tree roots).
Nitrogen is essential to plant growth. White clover is often sown in orchards as a walkable ground cover because it will provide a natural source of nitrogen as well as attract beneficial insects.
2: What Diseases and Pests are my fruit tree prone to?
Cherry trees are prone to several types of fungal diseases. Chives and chamomile are both anti-fungal to help repel those diseases. Oregano and calendula are also anti-fungal herbs worth planting under a fruit tree that is prone to fungal infection.
The Oriental fruit moth, tarnished plant bug, and cherry fruit fly are common pests to cherry trees. They can be controlled by attracting beneficial insects with plantings such as chamomile, coriander, daisies, or sweet alyssum, to name just a few.
My Cherry Tree Guild
In 2011 we planted dwarf tart cherry trees in the parking strip between the sidewalk and the street. It was a useful way to take advantage of that unused strip of grass. Read more about our adventures of planting in the parking strip!
Note: If you’re considering planting fruit trees in your parking strip, be aware of where the snow plow will fling snow and where the salt truck will fling salt. Neither will be good for your trees. Luckily, there are usually cars parked on the street in front of our house to act as a buffer.
We got a little over 2 pounds of fruit in our first harvest year (2012). Surprisingly, the birds were more interested in the cherry tree pests (see below) than they were in the cherries, but you may need to net your trees to get a harvest. I like the idea of leaving one tree for the birds and harvesting from the others, then rotating the “giving” tree each year.
Our Guild Plants: Comfrey and Chives
Our cherry trees were planted with chives immediately surrounding the trunk of the tree, with a ring of comfrey plants around that for all of the benefits listed above such as mulch, fertilizer, and pollination.
I planted my cherry tree guilds with garlic chives because that’s what I had, but regular chives will work even better. Chives (Allium shoenoprasum) bloom in the spring at the same time as cherry trees, while garlic chives (Allium tuperosum) don’t bloom until the late summer.
Comfrey blooms all season long.
What my Cherry Tree Guilds Lack: Nitrogen Fertilizer
Nitrogen is an important nutrient for fruit trees, and I haven’t gotten around to planting a nitrogen source in my guilds. White clover is the most obvious choice for fixing nitrogen in the soil, since it is walkable and will surely get trampled by foot traffic and pets in my parking strip.
If I were planting standard-size trees or had more space around my dwarf trees, I would consider planting some nitrogen-fixing fruiting shrubs.
Would you like to learn more about improving the biodiversity of your garden to reduce maintenance and increase yield?
You’ll find loads of information just like this in my book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.
Here’s What Happened When I Had a Pest Outbreak
Over time, it’s important to observe your fruit tree guild and be on the lookout for pests. Here’s how we discovered pests on our cherry trees and what we did about it.
Our trees looked lush and happy in the spring of their second year. The flowers were gorgeous and the spring cherry production was as expected for a young tree. However, some time in early July the leaves started yellowing. It appeared they were being eaten by something.
Upon further inspection, there were little insects on the underside of the leaves with black dots that appeared to be feces, or was it fungus to which the insects were attracted? Whatever it was, it was also denuding one of my serviceberry bushes in the backyard.
1: Identify the Pest
I wasn’t sure what was on the leaves. I consulted many resources on cherry tree pests, in addition to local fruit tree experts. I couldn’t identify it as any of the normal diseases or pests for cherry trees.
A whole year went by and I felt discouraged about not being able to identify the pests or a solution (I always let nature take its course if I don’t know what it is I’m dealing with. Nature has her way 🙂 ). In my cherry trees’ third summer, I was pruning my front yard hawthorn tree, when I noticed the leaves looking especially lackluster.
I pulled down a few of the leaves and lo and behold, it was the same pest! After more research I determined that the pest is called the Hawthorn Lace Bug. Though not known to be especially attracted to cherry trees, apparently it finds mine quite attractive.
2: Discover what Beneficial Insects prey on the pest
A good ole’ google search told me that the natural predators for the Hawthorn Lace Bug (bad) are the beneficial insects green lacewing and assassin bug (good).
3: Attract the necessary Beneficial Insects
I’ve identified the pest and the pest’s natural predator, now I have to attract these beneficial insects to my cherry tree guilds.
Interestingly, there was one young fruit tree in my yard that was not bothered by the Hawthorn Lace Bug: The dwarf plum tree. Cherries and plums are both in the same genus—classified as prunus, stone fruit. They share similar pests and diseases. So why was the plum tree not affected by the Hawthorn lace bug?
My guess is that it’s because the plum was underplanted with daisies which attract green lacewings. Coincidence? Maybe, but daisies proliferate like crazy, so I can easily dig some up to add to my cherry tree guilds, without spending a dime. And then observe.
4: Is your guild lacking in a particular nutrient?
In my case, I knew that my guilds were lacking in a nitrogen source. Nutrient deficiencies can make plants weak and more susceptible to pests and disease. I’m excited to add white clover (nitrogen) and daisies (attracting green lacewings) to my guilds and continue to observe their progress.
Getting your guilds just right will take observation and trial and error, and as you can see in my case, every situation will be unique.
Update: In our fourth harvest year we pulled 27 pounds of cherries from our three dwarf cherry trees and saw no pests of any kind. Success or coincidence? Time will tell 🙂
Cherry Tree Guild Shopping List
Need more ideas for growing a permaculture garden?
- 10 Reasons to Plant a Hedgerow
- Benefits of the Edible Forest Garden
- Create a Food Forest for Low-Maintenance, Edible Rewards
What have you planted in your fruit tree guilds? Have you made any adjustments over time?